Restaurant Roamin’ with Roman: The Den

Authored By Roman Flis

Two giant lions have recently prowled into Harrison. These prideful statues are now resting along Highway 58, guarding their new home, The Den, a restaurant and tavern that opened its doors to the public about a month ago. Sensing fresh meat, I pounced on The Den’s menu for dinner last Friday.

The Den

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Address
6306 Highway 58
Harrison, TN 37341

Phone
423-710-8318

Hours
Daily
10-2 a.m.

Star Rankings
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An epic dining experience: world-class service, décor and menu options.

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A superior dining experience: high-quality attributes you’ll want to come back for again and again.

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A solid dining experience: great characteristics but also some minor issues.

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A mediocre dining experience: may have a few good highlights but major flaws.

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A terrible dining experience: stay far away unless it’s the only place left to eat to avoid starvation, and even then, question if it’s worth it

Atmosphere and service
Going through the door was like walking into a wild kingdom. Mounted deer busts, a stuffed bobcat and an-obviously fake-elephant head were staring right at me. Although quite kitschy, this busy décor was an interesting attention-grabber.

This is a smoking establishment and thus 21 and up, but they are in the process of expanding with a nonsmoking area. It seemed to be well-ventilated, and the place was packed to almost full capacity throughout the evening.

My server was fun and affable, keeping on top of things with our table among her full section. The manager was also friendly, roaming around, helping with service and joking with tables.

The menu was concise with a few focused selections (around $8-$18) and some overlapping ingredients. This showed that they were attacking select specialties, which was promising for the food quality.

Appetizers
Aside from a side salad, which was straightforward with fresh ingredients, I tested a sampler of three appetizers ($12.99): fried pickles, stuffed mushroom caps and “cheese pints.”

The cheese pints were beer-battered, deep-fried cheese curds-a dish popular in the Midwest and Canada but relatively uncommon around these parts.

Curds are taken from the whey early in the cheese-making process, and these had a dense, springy texture. After biting into each curd, I could pull away a strong, cheesy string that could be plucked like a rubber band without breaking.

A thick, puréed housemade marinara was served to the side and had a good flavor, but it would’ve been better if it were warm. However, it was still an enjoyable complement to the hot curds. Their fried batter had a non-greasy crispiness and a strong flavor, nicely encapsulating these fun-to-eat cheesy delights.

The batter was having problems with the fried pickle chips, however, splitting apart at the seams on most of them. It was extremely crispy, giving these lightly sour dill pickles a seasoned corn chip quality. They were enjoyable, overall, and even better dipped in the creamy, housemade ranch dressing served to the side.

The mushroom caps were stuffed with cheese and lightly spicy sausage and sprinkled with shredded Parmesan. This creamy, molten pork and cheese mixture nicely filled the large caps, but there were only two of them. Even with the variety and overall quality, the sampler was a bit small for $13.

Main courses
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the meatballs and marinara ($10.99). Would this be a warm version of the same sauce served with the cheese curds, drowning the pasta? Meatballs braised to oblivion in puréed tomatoes and herbs?

This was the point that The Den really began to impress me. This marinara was a fresh, light sauce of diced tomatoes, garlic, basil and oregano in tomato juice. The meat mixture was formed in giant orbs, holding their own seasoned juices and not rendered mushy from cooking in sauce.

The fettuccini was an itty bit under-cooked, but very close to al dente, catching the flavor of the sauce (without being overwhelmed by it), meatball juices and grated Parmesan. This was a great dish overall, and the portion size was ridiculous. You’ll probably need a to-go box for this one, especially since it also includes a large side salad.

The salmon ($14.99) was equally impressive with its strong teriyaki bourbon marinade of sweet, sour, savory and umami with a sharp ginger bite. This carnival of flavors was choreographed well and tamed by this moist, soft fish fillet.

A medley of squash, zucchini, peppers and onions was served to the side. These veggies were sautéed to a softly firm texture and strongly seasoned. A bed of sticky steamed rice soaked up the powerful flavors from all the components and gave the dish a good balance.

Next, I sampled their Reuben ($8.99), which was grilled to perfection on marbled rye. There was a plentiful amount of quality corned beef slices smothered in melted Swiss, steaming sauerkraut and tangy housemade Russian dressing. This was an excellent Reuben, echoing the quality of all the entrées I tried. The fries to the side were OK: not very crispy, soft in the middle and not overly salty.

The Den also serves thin-crust pizzas ($7.99 plus $1.50 per topping), so, of course, I had to sample a slice. We ordered a mushroom pie, and its crust had a buttery, cracker-crisp consistency-we had asked for extra mushrooms, and they obliged without an additional charge.

The custom cheese blend was heavily seasoned with oregano, but though its melted gooeyness was gobbed in copious amounts around the pie, it wasn’t spread far enough to create a cheese lock over the edge of the sauce (which was a hot version of the aforementioned marinara purée). This enables all the cheese to slide off the slice after the first bite rather than remaining stationary. However, that doesn’t diminish the flavor, and this was a tasty pie.

Dessert
My server highly recommended the cheesecake ($4.99), which had Oreo cookie crumbles in the crust and baked inside. She said it was also supposed to have a cherry sauce, but they were out of it. It was still OK without the sauce, and the cheesecake was soft and not overly rich. Combined with the cookie crumbles, the creamy, sweetened cheese mirrored the cream inside an Oreo itself.

Final thoughts
I’m giving The Den a shaky 3 stars. There were some small hiccups with the meal, but overall, the experience shined with the luster of a quality food establishment heading in the right direction. From the wild décor to the attentive service to the dishes done with obvious pride, The Den should keep packs of people coming in.

Not only a prime destination for Harrison locals, this place is worth the drive for a unique food experience. And when the weather heats up and people begin flooding into the nearby Harrison Bay State Park, I’m sure The Den will be a popular stop along the way.

Roman Flis is a wandering writer, focusing on Chattanooga’s food scene. You can find him at romanflis.com or on Facebook and Twitter, or you can contact him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.